A friend recently said she had met – in her words – a “Brazilian Japanese” and it had been quite weird because he looked Japanese but his behavior was Brazilian – more relaxed and informal. I told her then that Brazil has the largest population of Japanese people and people of Japanese origin outside Japan. There are millions of Japanese Brazilians, known in Brazil as nipo-brasileiros.
The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil around the year 1908. The economic situation in Japan was difficult and many people saw emigration as a solution to the crisis. Their plan was to go to Brazil to earn money working on farms and go back to Japan as soon as possible. Japanese immigrants went mainly to the states of São Paulo, Parana and Pará. The immigrant flow increased with the end of World War I, especially in the 1930’s and with the advent of World War II their plans to return to their home country were abandoned and most Japanese immigrants and their descendants stayed in Brazil for good.
The Japanese descendants born outside Japan are called nikkei. Each nikkei generation has a name: issei for Japanese immigrants, nissei for the children of Japanese immigrants, sansei for the grandchildren and yonsei for the great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants. The first generation is made up of of people who are now between 35 and 100 years old (sometimes even older!) and came to Brazil between 1908 and 1973. These people are usually only fluent in Japanese. The nissei generation is usually bilingual. Younger generations (sansei and yonsei) speak, in most cases, just the Portuguese language, using Japanese at home only if they live with older relatives who speak Japanese. The culinary habits of Japanese immigrants are the most resistant to cultural miscegenation. Although Brazilian dishes are predominant on the menu, the habit of eating Japanese rice, cooked vegetables and the use soy sauce remains. Strong religious practices are also linked to the worshiping of ancestors.
In São Paulo, the neighborhood of Liberdade (which means freedom) is a symbol of Japanese cultural and architectural heritage. Many people who work there speak Japanese and it is possible to see many facades decorated with Japanese ideograms. On Sundays there is a street market there with stalls selling typical food and handicrafts. Some typical Japanese festivals are also celebrated in Liberdade. One of them is the Tanabata Matsuri, the Festival of Stars, when the streets of the neighborhood are decorated with bamboo and colored paper ornaments.
This video is a news report on the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil in 2008 (in Portuguese).
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